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creative:impact - Community comes first with CAN Art & Design

Laura Amtower
Community Action Network

One person can make a difference! The Community Action Network (CAN) started its Art + Design program because one member of the community was concerned that many kids were missing out. Hear how a seed planted blossomed to now serve children in many of our neighborhoods, when CAN's director of education, Laura Amtower, joins host Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw on this edition of "creative:impact."

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


Laura is an artist, designer, & educator living in Detroit. She received a Master of Fine Art from University of Michigan 2015, and a dual Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art + Art Education in 2012. She's professionally worked with Stamps School of Art and Design as Engagement Coordinator, Director of CAN Art & Design at Community Action Network, Director at FLY Children's Art Center, and held research and teaching positions at Adrian College, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and Core77.

Laura’s creative practice merges her background in Art Education with contemporary methods of Social Practice. She strives to bring folks together through innovative pedagogy, intention, and most importantly - play. She’s implemented pop-up, play-centered projects in collaboration with Toledo Museum of Art, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Lake Superior State University, Humane Society of Huron Valley, Rainbow Kitchen Community Services in Pittsburgh, and Mitchell Elementary School and STEAM @ Northside Elementary in Ann Arbor.


Community Action Network (CAN)

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Laura Amtower

Laura Amtower Bio

Laura Amtower Contact Info


Deb Polich: This is creative:impact and WEMU 89 FM, I'm Deb Pollack, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and while David Fair is out on medical leave, your solo host for the show. I invite you to join me for the next few weeks as we welcome creative guests and explore the impact of the arts and creative industries in Washtenaw County. We return to an ongoing creative:impact theme, and that is how art and the creative industries intersect with almost every other sector. Community Action Network, or CAN, was founded in Ann Arbor in 1987. Listeners may know it as an agency that manages the Northside, Hikone, Bryant, Creekside, and other community centers. Its portfolio, though, extends beyond the community centers as they concentrate on closing social economic gaps for children, youth, and families from under-resourced Washtenaw County neighborhoods. CAN's director of education, Laura Amtower, joins us to talk about CAN and its art and design program. Welcome to the show, Laura. 

Laura Amtower: Hello, it's great to be here.

Deb Polich: Yeah, I'm excited to have this conversation. In 2015, Canton was approached by a community member, Joanie Binkow, about a disparity she found in the public schools. Can you tell us about that discovery and how she fostered what is now CAN's art and design program? 

Laura Amtower: Yes. So, in 2016, Joanie Binkow noticed that there was really no after-school art program, particularly at Mitchell Elementary and across much of Washtenaw County. Though there are many art programs, she was looking more specifically at those that served under-resourced families. And so, she put together a team of incredible, brilliant artists and educators. One being the visual arts teacher at Mitchelll Elementary, myself, another artist as well, and the previous executive director of Community Action Network, Joan Doughty. And, together, the small team of people kind of created what's now known as CAN Art and Design. 

Credit Community Action Network / canwashtenaw.org
CAN Art & Design webpage

Deb Polich: So, why do you think Joanie cared and then, follow-up on that, why CAN decided that providing these services to these kids would be important? 

Laura Amtower: So Community Action Network noticed a lack of art programing, particularly with housing with after-school programs, everything that they are working with in the county currently. And so, we decided to try out this program and create a pilot, and that grew to be a once-a-week program that now happens that all of our sites once a week and for six weeks over the summertime. 

Deb Polich: So, now you mentioned that CAN has a number of locations, but something had to prompt CAN to actually move forward and take that pilot and make it a multi-site program. Is there anything specific that they connected to?

Laura Amtower: So, yeah. So art not only happened during the two-hour sessions after school and half a day over the summer, we integrate many placemaking projects at all of our community centers, whether that's through interior design work, creating self-care rooms. We are working on playscapes at all of our sites, so, currently, we have playgrounds adjacent to all of our housing centers and community centers. And so, we are making them their own and having students work with them and families work together and bringing the community together. 

Deb Polich: This is creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Our guest is Laura Amtower, education director at the Community Action Network, or CAN. She directs the CAN Art and Design program for underresourced students in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. You mentioned community quite a number of times and these community centers. How important is it to have a location where young people can actually access, perhaps by walking to rather than being transported? 

Laura Amtower: Oh, it's so, so important for students. They come right off of the bus. They come just to pop in for a snack. They come if they need help with homework. So, we do have designated times where students can come and receive particular services but also just having these sites within walking distance is just so incredible. I mean, sometimes they get locked out of the house and they need an extra hand to help them out. There's so many, so many benefits. 

Deb Polich: So, you're a safe harbor of sorts, too. 

Laura Amtower: Yes, absolutely. 

Deb Polich: So, your programs are much more than handing somebody a paintbrush and some paint or some tools. This is really a well thought-out program. Can you describe perhaps one of the sessions? 

Laura Amtower: Absolutely. So, to take a step back before I describe too much, every year, we have our own theme, and we develop an advisory committee of local experts who help out and create content that's relevant to current topics. And so, this year, we're focusing on wellness. So, that's emotional wellness, health, mental wellness, self-care practices. And so, typically, when students come, they know the routine, they know exactly what is expected of them for the day. And so, they're creating together. And many times, the projects transcend beyond just one workshop, and they are installations that go up in the community centers. They are messages that they're sharing with community members. And, again, we work on our playscape workshops during these times. 

Deb Polich: So parents and guardians must be important to the program too. What do you hear from them or how do you interact with them? 

Laura Amtower: Yes. So parents and guardians. They are very close with CAN. So, again, they are just as far away as the students. Their houses are usually within sight distance of our community centers. And so, we also provide adult services as well. There are food pantries, different services for housing stabilization, and so, they really appreciate CAN, and it's truly a big family. 

Deb Polich: This is creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Our guest is Laura Amtower, education director at Community Action Network, or CAN. We're talking about CAN's after-school art and design programs in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. So, this is a community-based program. So, we've talked about parents and we've talked about students. How is the broader community involved?

Laura Amtower: Sure, so we have many partnerships. We work with other organizations, such as Leslie Science Center, Ann Arbor District Library. We're working with WACY--Washtenaw Area Children and Youth--that brings together multiple organizations that are carrying out similar missions. And we collaborate. We share resources. It's truly a wonderful, wonderful creative community.

Deb Polich: So, when, you know, this program started, in large part, because art and creative education isn't available to all students, what do you think can be the change so that that is and becomes a reality? 

Laura Amtower: Sure. So, that's a very big question. I think that-- 

Deb Polich: You only have two minutes to answer it. 

Laura Amtower: Okay. Sure. So, that's a very layered approach. I would say, certainly, making experiences meaningful for all stakeholders involved. So, we work with university students who are working through internships. We're working with other organizations to make things truly sustainable. You really need a network of support to make things happen and a clear vision to move forward. 

Deb Polich: So, we applaud you, your CAN colleagues, and community members like Joanie Binkow for making a difference in the lives and the future of our children. Thank you for joining us on creative:impact. 

Laura Amtower: Thank you so much for having me. 

Deb Polich: That's Laura Amtower, education director at Community Action Network, or CAN. She leads their art and design program--their after school program--for students in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Learn more about Laura and CAN art and design at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and, for a few weeks, your solo host of creative:impact while David is out on medical leave. Please join me next week and always tune into your community NPR Radio Station, eighty nine one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. 

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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